13 Tech Support Strategies

Providing quality technical support in K-12 environments can be challenging. Unlike the business world, there's generally a less-than-ideal ratio of technical staff to computers, numerous software titles from dozens of vendors, and of course-a much smaller budget. At the Victor Central School District in Victor, New York, we've employed a number of techniques over the past five years to streamline tech support, the best of which we've listed below. Each tip falls under one of three key areas: standardization, centralization, or documentation.


1. Hardware

Try to use no more than two computer brands on your campus. Technicians will become familiar with the particulars of those machines, ultimately cutting down the amount of time it takes to troubleshoot problems. Similarly, only deal with vendors who guarantee "component level standards" for machines purchased at the same time. Without this, hundreds of seemingly identical machines may have different optical drives, motherboards, disk drives, and installed memory.

2. Word Processing

Five years ago, my district had four different word processing packages with several incompatible versions within each package-a technical nightmare. Standardizing on one version of a single suite reduces support requirements by making it a cinch for users to trade files. It also lets the IT department build a large database of collective knowledge about the software program.

3. Naming

Districts and schools increasingly support and maintain their networks remotely. None of this is possible without a standard method to name computers and printers. At Victor, the convention is building/room/number for computers and building/room/number-printer type for printers. If a room contains more than one computer, we tack on a number.

4. Cloning

Save time by using disk imaging software, which copies the entire contents of one hard drive and applies it to other machines of the same model so they are all set up the same way. To learn more about imaging Windows XP and Mac OS X computers, visit www.victorschools.org/departments.cfm?subpage=43.


5. Tech Purchases

Assign a point person to examine every purchase order for equipment and software before it leaves the district. You might think this is to enforce hardware standards and ensure that all purchased software will run properly, and you would be right. But there's an even more important reason: making certain that the software meets specific educational objectives.

6. Installation

Purchasing a site license/network version means simply loading software once on a server and launching it on every computer in a building. This saves technicians the time-consuming task of having to load software on hundreds of individual computers.

7. Software Storage

Load software installers, utilities, printer drivers, and software patches on one computer accessible by technicians from every computer in your district. This allows them to reach across the network and access tools without having to run back to the office and locate the original media. Speaking of which, store original media and manuals in plastic hanging bags, available at library supply stores. Use narrow bookcases and long lengths of stainless steel rod to hang the bags (organized by category and cross-referenced with an inventory database).

8. Security Updates

The company that supplies your virus protection software maintains an FTP site for downloading signature file updates. Avoid bottlenecks by mirroring off this site to your own internal FTP server rather than having each of your computers hit the vendor's FTP site on a daily basis. It's as important to keep system software patches up-to-date as it is to keep virus signature files up-to-date. We use Microsoft's SUS to automatically push out Windows updates.

9. Client Management

We use Novell Zenworks, Apple Remote Desktop, and Hewlett Packard Web Jetadmin to reach across the network and take control of end users' computers to solve problems; load software from a central location to hundreds of computers at once; and remotely upgrade firmware on printers.

10. Help Desk

A Web-based help ticket database makes it easy for technicians to add a ticket or close one out. In my district, we use Online Work Order Suite from OnlineTechTools.com; for a list of other help desk solutions, see www.techlearning.com/ story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=17300812.


11. Inventory

Develop a database that stores information about every computer, software title, printer, digital camera/camcorder, scanner, PDA, TV, VCR, DVD player, network drop, and static IP address on campus. Keeping track of hardware and software is important for copyright enforcement, report generation, and most importantly, decision making. For example, last year we received a recall on a power cord for a particular model of HP inkjet printer. Using our database, we quickly located all 34 on campus.

12. The Network

Create a network map showing all switches and routers and connections between these devices (Microsoft's Visio product comes with a huge built-in library of network shapes to help with this). Victor's inventory database lists every Ethernet drop in the district, showing location, how the faceplate and patch panel are labeled, and what wiring closet it runs to. This makes it easy to quickly troubleshoot network-related problems and plan for infrastructure upgrades.

13. Machines

Cloning or imaging software makes it easy to deploy hundreds of machines (see #4 at left). Make sure to document how that first machine is set up-e.g., system settings, software preferences. In addition, put together a reference manual that contains: desktop standard installs and settings; image creation and application processes; IP addressing scheme; important IP addresses such as servers; naming conventions; tape backup routine; log-in script and drive mappings; and step-by-step instructions for various routine tasks, such as how to set up a drop folder, how to add an IP printer, and how to configure virus protection software.

Dave Henderson is director of computer services for Victor Central School District in Victor, N.Y.

Supporting Players

Read on for a sampling of companies offering tech support solutions.

Absolute Software
Bombich Software
Centurion Technologies
Fortres Grand
Truistic Software